On February 11, I testified before members of the New York State Assembly at a public forum on the death penalty. The hearing was the final in a series of public sessions called by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver last fall to examine New York’s death penalty statute. The law was struck down in June by the State Court of Appeals, making New York the latest in a growing number of states that are rethinking their commitment to state-sanctioned executions. With a de facto moratorium currently in place, the hearings’ purpose was to determine whether the law should be fixed or killed once and for all.
I applied to testify at the hearing as a member of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, a national grassroots organization with which I have been active since college. Because “grassroots” can sometimes feel synonymous with a lack of resources or mainstream political clout, I hadn’t expected to be among the witnesses called, and was unsurprised when I didn’t make the initial cut. I’m a fairly young activist, after all, and those chosen to testify were largely academics and legal experts, as well as prominent members of New York law enforcement and religious communities. In other words, people with credentials.
What we lack in official titles, however, the CEDP makes up for in relationships with people who have been affected by the death penalty. Our members include exonerated death row inmates and their families–people whose voices are critical to–yet often absent from–any real debate about the death penalty’s societal effects.
At the first round of hearings last December 15th at the New York City Bar Association, the CEDP was represented by two men who I have grown to admire: Madison Hobley, one of the four former Illinois death row inmates whose documented innocence led to a pardon by Gov. George Ryan in 2003, and Shujaa Graham, a former Black Panther who was imprisoned in California in 1969 and falsely accused of killing a prison guard in 1973. After a morning spent listening to studies that cited “racial bias” in the distribution of the death penalty, the statistics took human form during Madison’s description of the Chicago police officer who tortured and framed him almost twenty years ago for a crime he didn’t commit. Shujaa didn’t mince words. “I’m here to say that this is racism.”
That day I learned that “expert testimony” does not mean having a badge or a degree. It means knowing what you are talking about.
A month and a half later, I got a call from the Assembly office. Further hearings had been scheduled to accommodate the large number of people who wanted to speak out against the death penalty, and I had a spot on the last day. I quickly wrote a draft presenting what I felt were compelling, objective reasons for why the death penalty is wrong–its cost, its ineffectiveness as a deterrent, etc. But after reading my prepared remarks for the umpteenth time, I finally scrapped it and started over. The result was a far more personal account of why I feel the death penalty should be abolished.